That’s because – in the tough environments in which our ancestors lived – if they missed out on a carrot, they usually had a shot at another one later on. But if they failed to avoid a stick – a predator, a natural hazard, or aggression from others of their species – WHAM, no more chances to pass on their genes.
This bias towards the negativity shows up in lots of ways. For example, studies have found that:
In your own mind, what do you usually think about at the end of the day? The fifty things that went right, or the one that went wrong? Like the guy who barged past you, what you wish you had said differently to a colleague or family member, or the one thing on your To Do list that didn’t get done.
The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences (i.e. they stick to it) but like Teflon for positive experiences (they tend to slide off it) That fact pushes your underlying expectations, your beliefs, action strategies, and your mood – in an increasingly negative direction.
And that’s just not fair, since probably most of the facts in your life are positive or neutral. Every day, numerous good things happen, such as a lovely sunset, someone is nice to you, you cuddle your pet, you finish a batch of emails, or you learn something new. And lots of other good things are going on 1 all the time without much attention from you (e.g., your family are healthy, life is peaceful in your corner of the planet) or within yourself (e.g., your personal qualities like determination, sincerity, fairness, kindness, courage).
Acquiring a big pile of negative experiences in your memory, naturally makes a person more anxious, irritable, and downbeat. Plus, it makes it harder to be patient and giving toward others.
Mother Nature only cares about passing on genes, keeping the human race going – by any means necessary. She doesn’t care if we happen to suffer along the way – from subtle worries to intense feelings of sorrow, worthlessness, or anger.
The result is a brain and body that is tilted against lasting contentment and fulfilment, it’s tilted the other way... that’s what we mean when we say the Negativity Bias.
But - the good news is, you don’t have to accept this bias! By choosing wherever possible to tilt toward the good – “good” in the practical sense of that which brings more happiness to oneself and more helpfulness to others – you can level the playing field.
You’ll still see the tough parts of life. In fact, you’ll become more able to change them or bear them if you tilt toward the good, since that will help put challenges in perspective, it will lift your energy and spirits, highlight useful resources and your own strengths, and will fill up your own cup so you have more to offer to others. And then if you are tilted toward noticing and absorbing the good and positive experiences instead of them washing through you like water through a sieve, instead they’ll collect in implicit memory deep down in your brain. In the famous saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The more you get your neurons firing about positive facts, the more they’ll be wiring up positive neural structures in your brain. This helps to start building a “Positivity Bias”.
Taking in and allowing the good experiences to fill you up, is a brain-science way to improve how you feel, get things done, and how you are in relationships with others. It is among the top five personal growth methods for adults and children, helping them to become more resilient, confident, and happy.
Here’s how to take in the good and build your Positivity – in three simple steps.
1. Look for good facts and turn them into good experiences
Good facts include positive events – simple things like the taste of good coffee or getting an unexpected compliment – and positive aspects of the world and yourself. When you notice something good, allow yourself pause, notice it, feel it in your body, and feel good about it.
Try to do this as often as you can, set yourself a target of at least a half dozen times a day. There are lots of opportunities to notice good events, and you can always recognize good things about the world and yourself. Each time takes just 30 seconds or so. It’s private; no one needs to know you are taking in the good. You can do it as you go, in daily life, or at special times of reflection, like just before falling asleep (when the brain is especially receptive to new learning).
Notice any reluctance to feeling good. Such as thinking that you don’t deserve to, or that it’s selfish, vain, or even shameful to feel pleasure. Or that if you feel good, you will lower your guard and let bad things happen. Just notice it, don’t engage in ruminating about it or trying to figure it out. Be curious and just notice and acknowledge any reluctance.
Barriers to feeling good are common and understandable – but they get in the way of you taking in the resources you need to feel better, have more strength, and have more inside to give to others. So acknowledge these barriers, to yourself, and then turn your attention back to the good news. Keep opening up to it, breathing and relaxing, letting the good facts affect you.
It’s like sitting down to a meal: don’t just look at it—taste it!
2. Really enjoy the experience
Most of the time, a good experience is pretty mild, and that’s fine. But try to stay with it for 20 or 30 seconds in a row – instead of getting distracted by something else.
As you can, sense that it is filling your body, becoming a rich experience. As Marc Lewis and other researchers have shown, the longer that something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons that fire and thus wire together, and the stronger the trace in memory.
We want to build and strengthen the memory of the good experiences into your brain, to balance the negativity bias.
You are not craving or clinging to positive experiences, since that would ultimately lead to tension and disappointment. Actually, you are doing the opposite: by noticing them, taking them in and filling yourself up with them, you will increasingly feel less fragile or needy inside, and less dependent on external supplies; your happiness and love will become more unconditional, based on an inner fullness rather than on whether the momentary facts in your life happen to be good ones.
3. Intend and sense that the good experience is sinking into you
People do this in different ways. Some feel it in their body like a warm glow spreading through their chest like the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa on a cold wintry day. Others visualize things like a golden syrup sinking down inside, bringing good feelings and soothing old places of hurt, filling in old holes of loss or yearning; a child might imagine a jewel going into a treasure chest in her heart. And some might simply know conceptually, that while this good experience is held in awareness, its feel-good neurons are firing busily away, and gradually wiring together.
Any single time you do this will make only a little difference. But over time those little differences will add up, gradually weaving positive experiences into the fabric of your brain and yourself.